By Sybil MacBeth
Advent is a feast for the senses, a preparation for a journey, a pep rally for the Church’s new liturgical year, and the kickoff celebration for our daily pilgrimage with God. Advent is juicy and pregnant. It is not just the four-week waiting period before Christmas. It is the gestation time and dress rehearsal for the way to live every day of the year.
A luscious Advent vocabulary of nouns and verbs sprinkles our church and home conversation during these four weeks: preparation, anticipation, wonder, star, journey, waiting, watching, attention, patience, hope, despair, expectancy, darkness, light, fear, faith, and repentance. These words indicate that something special is about to happen. There is physicality and emotion in these words. Some words are about waking up and being alert. Others are paradoxical pairs; they describe the conflicting experiences we have in life. We recite them, read them in Scripture, and sing them during the weeks before Christmas.
Christians are called to be Advent people all year. Jesus is our longed-for Savior; but even after Christmas, we still wait for the transformation of the world into the kingdom of God. As a flesh and blood Savior, Jesus calls us to be God’s hands and feet on earth. Our waiting during Advent and beyond is both active and incremental. Jesus’ invites us to be part of the Incarnation, to put our feet on the ground and join in God’s kingdom-building pilgrimage on earth. The practices we take on in Advent teach us to be attentive, one-day-at-a-time pilgrims. The words we learn in Advent are the daily, year-round vocabulary of Christians. We wait, hope, watch, hope, fear, trust, anticipate, and repent throughout the year.
Here are a few of my favorite Advent practices and activities. They immerse me in the season and language of the season. Most of them are daily (but not lengthy) practices reminding me that the spiritual life is one baby step at a time. These activities are physical, embodied, sensory, meditative, playful, and active. Some are solitary, some are communal.
Plants and Bulbs: To teach children (and adults) about watching and waiting — but not waiting in vain — plant paperwhite narcissus or amaryllis bulbs at the beginning of Advent. Fill a clear container with potting soil or stones. A clear container makes the growing roots visible. Plant the bulb in the soil or stones with about half of the bulb showing above the surface. Place the bulbs in a warm spot near a window. Watch the daily, incremental growth of the plant. Daily watering can be the task of even a young child. Even as an adult, I never tire of watching the day-to-day progress of the green stalks and the ultimate flowering of the plant.
Advent Calendars: Download a calendar template for late November and December. (Look on my website prayingincolor.com for my free, annual Advent calendar.) Each day write an Advent word in the space or the name of a person for whom you are praying. Doodle around the word or the name. Add color. Sit with the word or the person as you meditate and pray. I like to think of this calendar as a “count up” to Christmas and not a “countdown.” At the end of the 22 to 28 days you will have a colorful dictionary of Advent words or a beautiful visual prayer list.
You can create another version of this calendar by attaching small envelopes to a rope or string with clothespins. Each day, ask one family member to choose a word or name for the envelope. Doodle and color around it. Put dollar bills or loose change in the envelope of the day. When Advent ends, send the collected money to an organization or charity of your choice.
Color with Purple or Blue: Whether you are a purple or blue Advent devotee, splash your house or apartment with Advent color. For me, a string of purple lights, a purple paper chain, or a purple ribbon on a wreath acts as a stop sign. “Wait; it is not yet Christmas. Slow down. Enjoy this time of preparation.”
Quiet Corner: Create a place where people can go to be alone and quiet. A little table in a corner with a battery-operated votive candle, a few sprigs of greenery, a purple ribbon, and an old-fashioned egg timer creates an enticing place for children and adults to be alone and quiet. Invite children to turn on the candle, turn over the egg timer, and sit in the mystery of dark and silence for three minutes.
Advent Tree or Bush: Go ahead and buy a Christmas tree during Advent, but string purple, blue, or white lights on it. Use the tree as a large Advent calendar and pin an Advent word a day onto it. See if you can hold off on adding the Christmas ornaments until after December 20.
Short and Simple Writing: As a family or alone, read the Scripture passages about the people we associate with Advent: Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, angels. To summarize what you learn, write a tweet or three-sentence story. This is a playful way to corral your thoughts and a fun activity to share with others. Here is a 139-character tweet about Zechariah: Z struck speechless when he dissed the angel’s prophecy of impending fatherhood. Z’s first words after 9 silent months: “His name is John.”
During Advent, we chant the antiphon from Mark 1: “Prepare the way for the Lord.” When we proclaim these words, we are not just setting up for the grand party of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day and then sending him on his way to be Savior of the World. We are preparing to join him and follow him on whatever highway he takes with our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. Advent is our soulful, triumphal entry into the new Church year.
Sybil MacBeth is the author of The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist and Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God.